Committee Member Spotlight: Featuring Dr. Erickson

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The Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee is composed of 17 nationally recognized experts in the fields of physical activity and health. These distinguished individuals agreed to serve on the Committee in a voluntary capacity to review current evidence and make recommendations that will help inform the next edition of the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans. This post is part of a series of interviews with the Committee members to learn more about the men and women providing independent expertise and service to improve the health of the Nation.

Today, we are highlighting Dr. Kirk Erickson, Associate Professor in the Departments of Psychology and Geriatric Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh. On the Committee, Dr. Erickson serves as chair of the Brain Health Subcommittee and is a member of the Aging Subcommittee.

Dr. Erickson waterskiing.

What led to your interest in physical activity?

My interest in physical activity really stems from how it affects the brain. Many people think of intellectually stimulating activities as ‘exercise for the brain’ but I wanted to investigate how physical activity influences brain function. I know from my own experience that variety in physical activity helps keep me motivated; as a kid I roller skated and did martial arts and as an adult I run and do strength training exercises.

Tell me about some of your recent research.

I study the effects of physical activity on the brain for a number of different populations: individuals with Parkinson’s, depression, mid-life individuals with obesity, and older adults. One recent study examined how physical activity in older adults affected the hippocampus—a region of the brain that decreases in size as a person ages, leading to memory impairment. After a yearlong intervention, the group that participated in regular, moderate-intensity physical activity showed a 2 percent increase in the size of this brain structure—which was unprecedented.

Explain your view of the role of physical activity in health.

Overall, health is a complex mixture of genetic and epigenetic factors, environmental factors, and decisions made across the lifespan. I think of physical activity as close to the ‘magic bullet’ for health; it seems no matter what the health outcome or population, physical activity is playing a role in the prevention of disease, or can be a supplemental treatment. Stated simply, physical activity plays a central role in the majority of health outcomes.

What tips would you give Americans who are trying to be more physically active?

I would tell them persistence is key; some individuals don’t see immediate benefits after a few weeks and stop being physically active altogether. Yet, the effects of physical activity don’t happen overnight. I would encourage everyone to make physical activity a priority—as little as 10 minutes a day is linked to some health benefits. If you can’t find time to meet the Guidelines, don’t be discouraged. Start by adding in 10 minutes of physical activity every day, establish a routine and gradually increase the amount of time. Everyone has challenges in prioritizing their time, so be flexible. It’s important to make time for physical activity, just like you do for your favorite TV show.

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The Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion would like to personally thank each of the members for their dedication and service on the Committee. The Committee’s independent review of the scientific literature is the result of thousands of hours of work and will culminate with the submission of the 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee Scientific Report to the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). HHS will use the report to develop the next edition of the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans.

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